From the ashes of a tragic loss, comes the creation of an organization that seeks to spread hope and healing to those with depression and anxiety.
At 15 and 22 she took steps to end her own life. In February 2019, her depression prevailed when she was 33.
Family and friends have since joined together to create an organization that would help people, especially young women and girls, who are fighting the same fight as Dani's.
“I think all of us knew that we needed to somehow figure out a way to make something better out of something awful,” said Dani’s stepdad Jeff Heck.
A willingness to help others
Dani longed to help others fight battles that she too had wrestled with and offered her assistance whenever possible, mom Donna Heck said.
“She literally would rip off a piece of paper, give her cell phone (number) to anybody and everybody that had an issue and say, ‘Here, call me if you have a problem with that or let me help you,’” Donna said.
“From the time she was 14-years-old, she took on other people's issues in order to help them. And then I think she just buried the needs and the issues that were popping up again because she felt she needed to be so strong for everybody else.”
Dani’s smile and laugh were infectious. Her family described her as strong, with a big personality and big heart for others.
Her parents are Donna and Jeff Heck, of Lexington, and Roy A. and Mae Nar Leedy, of Lexington. Her siblings and their families are Joshua and Kimberly (Rupe) Leedy and Graham, of Ontario; Sara (Heck) and Rusty Bennett and Lincoln and William, of Grove City; Mandy (Heck) and Sean Brickner and Copley and Emery, of Charlotte, North Carolina; Dennette (Leedy) and Erik Santamaria and Aria Anita, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Alex Leedy and boyfriend Nick Adams, of Columbus.
Dani graduated from Lexington High School in 2003 and attended Kent State University. Her most recent employment was as the chief operating officer of Dream Bigger Media Group in Washington, D.C. She previously worked for a startup in the behavioral health industry in Florida.
She talked of writing a book and speaking professionally, but admitted how challenging being vulnerable can be, particularly with those close to her, family said.
“It was easier for her to talk to strangers about some of those struggles than I think it was for her to share some of those things with her family and friends,” Jeff said.
Her professional and personal successes seemed to thrive; however, through it all, she had periodic battles with the dark thoughts. She was skilled at “wearing the mask” to appear fearless and strong on the outside while continuing to struggle with self-doubt, fears, self-worth issues, body image issues, anxieties and depression on the inside.
Starting hard conversations
Part of the longterm mission of 33 Forever is to be a catalyst for open, honest and frank conversations.
“I think the idea is to be able to start what are sometimes difficult conversations to let people feel open and free to talk about those issues when sometimes they don't because they're afraid of judgment or stigma or they're afraid somebody is going to think that they’re weak or that they somehow are defective,” Jeff said.
By having these conversations, the hope is to help reduce the stigma that many with depression and anxiety feel, ultimately guiding them toward treatment, healing and empowerment.
There are also plans to offer educational programming.
“Maybe not reinvent the wheel, but support organizations that can talk about depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicide and self-harm,” Jeff said.
Already the organization has received an outpouring of community support about five weeks into its inception.
"We’ve got professionals in all these different areas that have reached out to us to offer their services, whether that be mental health professionals, nonprofit professionals, fundraising professionals…all these different people with different skillsets,” Jeff said.
The response has proven that their mission is striking a significant chord.
“I don’t think there’s a family that’s exempt, whether they’ll admit it or not, from dealing with depression, anxiety, some of these issues,” Jeff said.
Mental health in Richland County
The prevalence of mental health issues was shown in the Richland County Community Health Assessment of 2016, which identified mental health as one of the top priority areas.
According to the assessment, 3 percent of Richland County adults considered attempting suicide in 2016.
The health assessment results also indicated that 14 percent of Richland County youth (ages 12-18) had seriously considered attempting suicide in 2016, and 7 percent actually attempted suicide in 2016.
The number of suicides in the county reached an all-time high last year with 22 suicides, topping 21 in 2003 and 2015, according to Richland Public Health’s vital statistics.
Bridging helpful connections
Being able to connect people with helpful resources is another goal of 33 Forever.
"We just want to offer them help and find an easier way to get through the maze,” Donna said.
“It's not that we necessarily will have all the answers, but we can direct people to some of the best sources to get help with whatever it is they're dealing with,” Jeff added.
33 Forever is in the process of obtaining 501c3 status and welcomes personal and professional input as the organization continues to grow. If you would like to learn more or donate to the cause click here.
Dani’s story will not go untold, nor soon be forgotten. The impact of what she left behind is only now starting to be truly recognized.
"We do know if we can help other people and save one life, it's going to be worth it,” Donna said.